Rising off the typically desolate Des Plaines Street comes a mirage of a market. Constructed and deconstructed in a matter of hours. The Maxwell Street Market has been running every Sunday since its heyday in the early 20’s.
No, there isn’t an obvious error in the name. The legendary Maxwell Street Market did originate on Maxwell Street. This area became Chicago’s version of Ellis Island, as the gateway introduced new immigrants to the city.
But in 1994, the University of Illinois at Chicago bought the area for new developments, now dubbed University Village. Because of this purchase the market ended up at Canal Street for a few years and now finds it’s current resting place on Des Plaines Street traversing in between Roosevelt and Harrison streets.
Haggling over shoes, Virgin Mary paintings, electronics, winter-wear, sports gear, power drills, tires, tacos or fresh produce, vendors and shoppers gather in the winter marketplace. The committed few stands which remain throughout the cold Chicago months compact themselves in a tighter area, much smaller than when the market thrives during warmer climates.
The cold doesn’t seem to affect these brave merchants, “A lot of vendors don’t show up because its cold,” says Alex Alejandro, employee at The Green House Steaks stand. Mr. Alejandro has help run the taquiera stand at the Maxwell Street Market with his father since he was seven years old. The family has their own restaurant in Little Village under the same moniker.
“We did come out a couple times in below zero weather. We were here last year, and I’ll be honest with you we were the only food stand and we did good,” states Alejandro.
Besides the food tents wafting smoke and delicious aromas in the air, many stands appear as garage sales, with an array of items as random as the next. A cardboard zombie cutout stands next to an antique Old Style sign. A crystal vase sits next to some guitars and binoculars. These stands provide curious shoppers or collectors alike with some great finds.
One stand in particular had a pile of old records stacked next to a set of cassettes and CD’s. Ages of entertainment sat timeless at this table with music taste represented from the thirties all the way to the present. As one roams further down the market, the less surprised they will be with the variety of items you can find.
From produce stands that have cheaper prices than most supermarkets to tents that have a plethora of video games and electronics. A plastic ‘Duck Hunt’ gun lays next to Nintendo 64 games while a box of new Xbox and Playstation games lies nearby.
One table in particular sells winter gear at wholesale prices. The couple running the stand has been apart of the Maxwell Street Market for 35 years. “We started selling Christmas table cloths,” laughs Virginia Wolfer who runs her stand with her husband Jerry.
“In fact, I think my husband and I are the only married couple left from the original market. I think our time is shortening here more and more because of the economy. It just isn’t what it was.”
For many vendors, small businesses or people with a bunch of random junk, the market is a great opportunity to sell their goods. But it seems apparent that there is a reminiscent undertone in everyone’s voices. How the Maxwell Street Market was in its prime.
Wolfer continues, “We use to be at 14th and Newbury, that was a big market, it was nothing like this, it was awesome, it really was. The city took over and with that came more restrictions and regulations. They actually ran off a lot of the original vendors with their fines.”
Alejandro elaborates on his past experiences, “Before UIC bought the property. It was different, it was more free, anyone could come and sell anything, there were cars driving around the market.”
Through prosperous times and bad, through chilling weather or sunny skies the market rolls on. Coming out in the cold winter months displays the dedicated handful of people who remain faithful to the Maxwell Street Market.
Wolfer concludes, “Out of all the experiences we’ve had, I love all the amazing people that we’ve met at the market. We’re retired, rain or shine, every Sunday we come out.”
Photos by James Murray